Portrait expedition to ‘Saami-land’



OK, This follows on from the Doncaster miners post and project..

I have modelled and cast forty portaits of Miners for a large public art project in Doncaster, England.

Background to this Trip.

The realisation that I could do a portrait in two hours and interview someone at the same time, was a revelation to me, and did not go unnoticed by others.

Amongst them was Piers Vitebsky, Professor in Anthroplogy at Cambridge University who thought, like me, that this technique, might offer a novel way of recording the lives and experiences of peoples from around the world.

He suggested I take a trip to the Arctic circle with a group of Indigenous peoples and Anthroplogists.

And so it came to pass.

I have to say at this point the enjoyment of this posting will be greatly enhanced by a read through of my ‘Saami Diary’.. A cup of tea or a coffee, for those of a nervous disposition, should now be prepared and a comfortable seat found.. it will take the length of time it takes drink this beveridge to read.  After this, you will know in detail how to take a Bow-Head Whale from a Walrus hide kayak and feed your village.  You will know what Musk ox tastes like and indeed what is like to snuzzle up to a drunken reindeer herder in a bunk made for one.

Here it is .. a finely honed and crafted text,

Laurence Sami diary EDITED

Voila!  Now we can begin…


We shall proceed with wonderful images, and brief captions.


This is the map of the Arctic circle that greeted us on the wall at the Artikum, A Polar research academy in Roveniemmi (Father Christmas’s hometown in Lapland)


Here we met our companions for the week.. a host of Indigenous people from the Arctic Circle. Whale Hunters from the Bering Straits, Polar Bear and Fisher people from Northern Greenland. Nenets, Khanty, Eveny, and Sakha join Inuit from Alaska, Kaslaallisut, Nanavut, Nuuk and other Greenland territories.

Shari Fox an Anthroplogist from Clyde River near Baffin Island, has organised this expedition in order that indeginous peoples can share and compare lives and experiences and discuss the best ways to research and promote the issues that concern them.








But first you must witness Piers and I indulging in a customary Champagne Breakfast at the airport…Piers had set this trip up but was to leave us after the first day..here I am trying to get my head round that…




And meet Bill Jackson, (Monarch of the Tundra) who will be photographing and filming the sessions.. indeed it is his imagery you will be enjoying in this blog.





I was nervous it’s true.. to go into the middle of the Tundra with a load of people unnannounced, in cold and cramped conditions was not ideal. This was a scientific trip not an artisitic one, I was more or less a gate crasher.

So I decided to do a couple of portraits in the guest house before we left, at least then i’d have something..


First up was Tolya. An ebulliant showman. A Reindeer Herder from Sebyan in Siberia, who met Piers forty years ago, becoming his collaborator and an anthroplogist in his own right, indeed the only one with a Reindeer Heart inserted by a 106 year old Shaman!..









I had to tell him to keep still in the end. he wasn’t too happy about that…I got a good head.. which would prove valuable later on….


Next was Rosa.. she was from a Nenet a Nomadic Herding community, and spoke of how the contents of the tents remained exact and in place, in contrast to the ever changing landscape outside..








She is now an Anthropologist too, working in Holland, on the Folk stories and oral histories of her people.




I think she was a little uncomfortable with the idea of being observed, she became elusive, which was fascinating, becoming very difficult sculpt!





The next morning we set off for the hut up north. Near to the Arctic circle.

The roads were straight and as the tree’s got shorter the hats got bigger.





No snow..





Last stop for provisions and a meal



We switched to All Terrain vehicles and bumped accross the Tundra for an afternoon..







We rested on what seemed like the roof of the world.




As the shadows were lengthening the hut came into view..








It was obvious we weren’t all going to fit in, so some elected for the tent, a fun night at -6 degrees..





The evening saw us getting to know each other, in candle light..Here I sit with George Noongwook, from St Lawrence island Alaska,  and Vassilly from Nayba, the tiny village I had visited on my trip last year to North East Siberia.




Georges Whale hunting stories were captivating!!  or maybe we were hungry for his bread…




The Leader of the Saami Herders, and our host.

I really didn’t know how I was going to create a time and find a space to do my work, The people here were perplexed as to why I an ‘artist’ was here at all, I wasn’t a scientist and apparenty not indigenous.. I was concerned..


We made for our bunks my nose scraping the ceiling ,we sweated in bags as the wood burning stoves raged on.


Early morning we rose to coffee and Reindeer meat.



I look for models.. scraping up courage…though not enough to approach these two..




I had thought about the enigmatic ‘George’ as I slept, and what an amazing story he would have to tell.. I was very excited and waited for a moment to approach..



It was outside that I walked upto him and said ‘I’m a sculptor’  confused he returned my gaze, after a longwinded  explanation he conceded, sacrificing the talking and a trip to the border!



What a lovely guy..



Fascinating descriptions of life in the most fertile sea’s in the world.






He pointed to the back of his wrist as he described the soft spot at the base of a Bowhead’s skull.  You need to know these things!

Tolya’s head was stationed on the table for the duration of the stay, much to the amusement of the Herders from Naybar, who passed him around laughing. I caught people looking and touching, they may be beginning to understand what I was trying to do…or as those from Yamal worried, felt I might be stealing their souls, this was disturbing, issues I never imagined were raising their heads (that wasn’t an intended pun)





He kind of approved of his likeness…




We broke for food and more discussion. As I plucked up the courage to approach my next model..


I spied Heikki laughing he seemed to be the centre of attention, so I asked.. he agreed, and came to sit down at the only table in the hut,, a much sort after table …which I was hogging!






Heikki proved quite a resistant model, I had asked Natasha an ex student of Piers  to translate, it was difficult finding converstaion and establishing eye contact when language was not shared.




His friends were mildly amused…



At one point he walked off, not wanting to answer questions,, I looked around rather awkwardly for 10 minutes whilst listening to him laughing and joking outside, eventually he came back with more of his favourite beer..




The session ended early, though i feel I got a good likeness….


He was much happier outside with the others, practising  lassoeing techniques.. here he is on the left.







That night we entertained each other, Here George plays his seal hide drum and sings Inuit songs..some funny!






Next morning I spy Agrafena.. I fine strong woman from East of the Urals, a proud Khanty activist. Their lands stretch upto the Yamal penisula on the Arctic. I reckon I have a chance..







A warm hearted wise person, her people herded reindeer in the forests, eating leaves and twigs from the lower branches. Their lands along the giant river Ob are now owned by Oil companies, It is they she is in constant conflict with, they even buy the roads so the  Khanty cannot get to their land.











I was pleased at the end, Agrafena spotted her grandmothers nose, I was getting into character. I was concerned as Rosa told me that all I wanted was ‘Siberian cheekbones’  considering the context and the sensitivities of the people in the room I certainly didn’t want to reinfoce stereotypes!


Agrafenas ears pricked up as a commotion started outside.




The Saami had returned with Tokuu our Greenlander fisher woman with a haul of fish liberated from nets they’d set in the lake the previous day. Kilo’s of fish were brought to shore.


The Sami have special rights to fish and hunt in the Tundra, there are particular sensitivities in the Saami community at the moment as the as Saami politicians and the Finnish government argue about who is really considered indigenous. With indigenous status come important fishing and herding rights.


Infact some of the Sami thought we might be working for the government, this would explain Heikki’s reluctance to talk..




Large Pike, Trout and other fish were seized upon enthusiastically.




Agrafena waits for her Pike, she will take it away and skin it in a second, like tights being pulled off a leg. In a pot within minutes bubbling and boiling away.



Tokku de-scales and fillets fish at lightning speed.




Sergei and his wife fish for half of their year, whilst the Reindeer graze off season, they deftly fillet Trout, fresh Roe dribbles down our chins.


We feast , there is no chance of finding models now as people relax.






I leave my waxes around the Hut,






A piece of my ‘everyday’ in a remote hut full of unsuspecting folk.


A strange alliance..



The next day we pack up


Leave the hut…


and bump back across the Tundra.




We return  to Rovaniemmi the next day , and witihn a day I am back in the uk.


We are now moulding the heads at the Foundry, and they will be added to the archive i’m slowly building . Bill will edit the film interviews.


Each sitter will be sent a plaster head , it will turn up unexpectedly at their door, they will hopefully be pleasantly surprised, and remember the incredible week we spent in the Hut in the Tundra..


Thankyou to everyone who  put up and looked after us.. their generosity and kindness was humbling.


Shame you didn’t read that diary!


Until next time.. Thankyou Piers!










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